President Donald Trump’s appearance at a White House news conference Feb. 15 with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reminded me of my grandmother, may she rest in peace, who often grumbled about Israeli leaders. She usually signed off from her carping with a heavy sigh and muttered, “But heaven help us, he’s our very own fool.” An Israeli listening to Trump’s remarks clearly saw a leader who doesn't bother doing his homework or studying for exams. Trump’s understanding of the ins and outs of the Arab-Israeli conflict barely measures up to that of an average Israeli news consumer. An Israeli might say, “But Trump is not our fool. He’s the Americans’ problem.” The late Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol would have responded to that, saying, “When the United States sneezes, Israel comes down with pneumonia.”
The backdrop, staging and goodwill gestures were perfect in Washington. The citizens of Israel saw their prime minister and his spouse being welcomed to the top of the world like royalty. The nefarious expression “Palestinian state” failed to mar the cloying sweetness. The leader of the free world released the Israeli government from the curse of Netanyahu’s 2009 Bar-Ilan speech espousing a two-state solution. For the Israeli right, this is worth more than the coveted relocation of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a Trump campaign promise the president doesn’t seem about to fulfill.
Trump made no mention whatsoever of the so-called Regulation Law — the land theft statute legalizing unauthorized West Bank settlements — which was harshly criticized by European leaders and even by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin when the Knesset passed it Feb. 6. There was a lot of talk about terrorism and incitement and, of course, about radical Islam. Not a word was spoken about the Oslo Accord, signed by Israel and the Palestinians in September 1993, almost 24 years ago, which is half the length of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, yet another topic omitted from the rhetoric.
Even Naftali Bennett, chair of the right-wing HaBayit HaYehudi and the Netanyahu family’s archenemy, was pleased with the White House meeting. The generous host left it up to the Israelis and Palestinians to choose their preferred solution to their conflict. He doesn’t care if they decide on one state or two states, just as long as they enable him to make a “deal.” Public opinion polls in Israel and the West Bank actually indicate that Jews and Palestinians would prefer a peaceful separation into two states. They understand that having one state would, in a worst-case scenario, turn Israel from a Jewish state into a binational state and eventually into a majority-Palestinian state, and in an even more terrible scenario, into a leper apartheid state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.
Those truly in a position to determine in which direction Israel will head are radical right-wing believers, who long ago chose the one state for two people option — a Jewish people, soon to be a minority, ruling an Arab people. (After all, they don’t recognize the existence of a Palestinian nation.) Their strategy rests on an assumption, or propaganda, that time and God Almighty are both on the side of the “eternal people,” as the Jews are called in the Bible. Their tactics are based on buying time and buying the support of the religious and nationalist political parties purporting to represent the will of the Creator.
Over the years, their tactical tools have become more sophisticated. They have largely been adapted to the winds blowing from Washington. Sometimes it is the demand that the Palestinians “stop the terrorism,” while at others it is that they “stop the incitement.” Now it is that they “recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people.” When there is no other choice but to put forward a diplomatic initiative, they dust off the good old “regional peace” idea. The idea of setting aside a “small deal” (of two states) agreed to by Israel and the Palestinians for the sake of a “big deal” (of normalized relations between Israel and the Arab states) sounds wonderful to the ears of a slipshod businessman who somehow found his way into the White House. Why has no one thought of that before?
Had Trump bothered going through some of the “peace process” files, he would have found that the big deal was not born this week. In fact, next month will mark its 15th birthday. On March 28, 2002, the Arab League presented Israel with a comprehensive peace initiative, proposing the establishment of a Palestinian state and an agreed upon resolution of the refugee issue based on UN Security Council Resolution 194 in return for normalizing ties with Israel. The Arab Peace Initiative was granted a place of honor in the 2003 road map put forward by President George W. Bush and turned into UN Security Council Resolution 1515.
Had Trump Googled the words “Netanyahu” and “regional peace,” he would have found that the prime minister, as well as the leader of Yisrael Beitenu, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, have been quite supportive of this idea. Searching for “Arab League states” and “relations with Israel,” however, would have revealed that the big deal will have to wait for the small deal between Israel and the Palestinians based on one inevitable solution — the establishment of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders and agreed upon land swaps.
Trump is right. His predecessors at the White House delved deeply into issues in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, but at a stage of their presidencies when it was too late. The vacuum they left behind for long periods of time was filled by radical elements who only intensified the violence and hatred, deepened the occupation and distanced the peace.
The sides were not able in the past and are unable today to achieve any kind of arrangement without the assistance of a fair, balanced and serious mediator. The man who stood next to Netanyahu at the White House does not appear to be a leader blessed with those requisite qualities. The nature of the new American president, his views and his conduct are, of course, first and foremost an American problem. Keeping Eshkol's words in mind, however, one can imagine what might befall Israel if it turns out that the vanity fair that took place at the White House confirms the worst fears — that its patron, rather than sneezing, had suffered a stroke.